A mahogany Campeche chair that was made in Louisiana in about 1815.
Louisiana cabinetmakers under Napoleonic rule earned job titles as elite as ébéniste and doreur, building and gilding furniture for plantation owners. The artisans’ ranks included slaves, free men of color and immigrants from Germany and the Caribbean. But they developed a signature Louisiana style.
They inlaid blond swags and customers’ initials on cypress armoires and modeled sling-back mahogany porch chairs after thrones that Spanish conquistadors had brought to Mexico. On cherrywood bedsteads with tapered posts eight feet tall they attached iron rods for drapes of mosquito netting, essential during Louisiana summers.
The Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum and research center, has published the first major study of the woodworkers’ products, “Furnishing Louisiana: Creole and Acadian Furniture, 1735-1835.” The main authors, the historians Jack D. Holden, H. Parrott Bacot and Cybèle T. Gontar, took road trips to study objects in about 40 institutions and 80 private homes.
The topic had long been ignored, partly because of some Northern bias among decorative arts scholars. “In 1949, Joseph Downs, then curator of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, infamously stated that ‘little of artistic merit was made south of Baltimore,’ ” John T. Magill, a curator at Historic New Orleans, writes in the book’s introduction.
A decade ago, the Met at last acquired a piece of early 1800s Louisiana furniture: a mahogany armchair with checkerboard inlay that is now tucked into a shadowy corner of the American Wing’s mezzanine.
The new study covers tables and chairs with elaborately flared and turned legs, and necessities as humble as corn-shuck brooms and painted wood washstands. The text explains how the pieces served their original owners. Ursuline nuns stored their meager possessions in boxy cypress dressers. An armchair with a Spanish Hapsburg eagle embossed on the leather was a favorite lounging spot for James Madison during his retirement in Virginia.
The artisans designed and reinforced their wares to endure “the vicissitudes of hurricanes, floods, war and changes in fashion,” the authors write. An 1820s cypress armoire “survived the great Mississippi River flood of 1927, leaving a distinct watermark more than halfway up the door panels.”
The book reports on provenances as well. In 2003, at Neal Auction Company in New Orleans, an 1810s mahogany armoire inlaid with ribbons and vines brought $140,000 (the presale estimate was $30,000 to $50,000). The piece, which had been displayed for decades at an 1820s plantation, was made by a prolific cabinetmaker whose name is not yet known. Scholars call him the Butterfly Man, because he joined wood slabs with pointy pegs that look like butterfly wings.
Next year, Historic New Orleans will organize an exhibition and an online database of Louisiana furniture. The show will probably not travel, said Jessica Dorman, the center’s director of publications, given the unwieldy size and heft of the antiques and the reluctance of owners to part with them for long.
By EVE M. KAHN
Published: December 9, 2010 from the New Yark Times